The importance of good friends and good health as we get older

Having a close pal you can share a coffee with - or something far more important - is the key to a h

Having a close pal you can share a coffee with - or something far more important - is the key to a happy life as you get older, says Christine Webber - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Having a good friend is not only vital to get you through life's daily troubles but it will also enhance your health and possibly prolong your life, says Christine WEbber

Friends are great, aren't they? They help us through bad times, celebrate our successes, lend a listening ear and provide comfort and companionship. They can also be relied upon for a reality check when we're shopping for a new outfit. Their wordless stare which means "Yes, your bottom does look big in that," saves us lots of money! So, there are loads of bonuses to having lovely mates. But did you know that research shows friendship is also good for our health?

"How?" you might ask.

Well, many experts - though not all - say it's something to do with oxytocin, which is often described as the "bonding" hormone. They claim that people with a strong social network have larger than average quantities of this "feel good" substance in their blood streams, and that oxytocin helps to combat damaging stress chemicals.

Medical researchers have been telling us for years that when individuals have persistently high levels of adrenaline and cortisol, they're more prone to problems such as raised blood pressure, poor memory, depression, heart disease, obesity and insomnia.

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So, boosting oxytocin and reducing the stress hormones would seem to be beneficial. And a growing number of scientists now believe that people with few, or no, friends have insufficient quantities of oxytocin, meaning their stress hormones are free to run riot. I must just add that individuals who are lonely and isolated often stop caring for themselves properly, which must be an additional factor in poor health.

To be honest, we may never know for sure why being friendless is damaging, but the bottom line, according to many experts, is that loneliness is as bad for us as smoking.

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Having a lively social circle then is pretty vital.

But it can be hard to keep up the numbers as we grow older. Some people we've been close to seem to age very differently from us, and our friendship suffers. Others decide to move nearer to their children and grandchildren and leave for the other end of the country, or beyond. And if we retire, it's all too easy to lose contact with colleagues whose company we used to enjoy.

Another aspect to ageing is that partners may become ill and housebound, which restricts our contact with others. Or they die, and we lose our best mate and long-term companion.

All in all, it can seem that just when we need our friends most, there are fewer of them about.

It's alarming how quickly this can happen. I was shocked to read a recent British Red Cross survey that revealed that one in five Brits have no close friends, and that over a third of us describe ourselves as "often alone".

I'm sure you've heard the term "use it or lose it". Generally, that applies to keeping physically and mentally active, but we should apply it to being sociable too. So do try not to get into the habit of saying you can't be bothered to go out to a neighbour's coffee morning or to your evening class. Every outing has the potential to increase our social circle.

And quite apart from what our friends do for us, we benefit from having people in our lives we care for, because this stops us from being too focused on ourselves.

Sadly, many older people believe it's impossible to make new friends. In fact, it's entirely possible, but it does take effort.

When I was a teenager, I used to read an agony column penned by a rather stern lady in the weekly magazine my mum bought. Her advice about loneliness was always to "join a club". This made me laugh. But now I realise she was right.

If we pursue activities we're interested in, whether that's flower arranging, learning a foreign language, walking, singing in a choir, or belonging to a book group, we meet other adults who like the same things we do. We get talking to them, and maybe have a glass of wine together, and before we know it, we have another friend.

Certainly, since returning to Norfolk, I've made several great pals through my own hobbies, which are music, books and exercise.

And I've taken to heart what the inspirational Suffolk-based Royal Ballet star Gary Avis once told me: "No one's ever lonely in a dance class."

I've only met one totally friendless person. She was a patient of mine, and though she was intelligent, and quite well off, she was entirely self-absorbed and simply couldn't grasp this basic rule: to have a friend you need to be a friend.

Most of us, however, do understand that, and know how to make friends, even if we're a bit rusty. So, let's keep up our tally of mates.

With luck we'll live a longer, fitter life, but even if that doesn't happen, we'll have a lot of fun.

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